Life as an Exchange Student in Kyoto

If you’ve ever dreamed of becoming an exchange student, packing your bags and heading to Japan, then today’s blog post may be of interest. Finn Burton (an undergraduate from Oxford Brookes university, reading English Linguistics and Communication with Japanese) has recently returned from a year abroad studying at Ryukoku University in Kyoto, and is here to share his experiences of living in one of Japan’s most popular and scenic cities.

Finn’s travel blog can be found here:

A year in Kyoto as an exchange student

Kyoto has a reputation for traditional Japanese beauty for a reason, and it seems you discover something you want to share every day you spend there. The sudden wave of activity on my previously neglected Instagram account is proof of just how much there is to see and experience. Unfortunately, Instagram and I are getting distant again while I avoid getting too envious of my friend, as I study in the UK and he visits the area of Kyoto where we both spent a year learning Japanese as exchange students.

kyoto kyaku

Why go to Kyoto?

With iconic tourist spots like The Golden Pavilion, Fushimi Inari shrine and the historic district of Gion, Kyoto never lets the rest of Japan forget that the city used to be the country’s capital. Tokyo may represent Japan’s modern image of technology and business, but Kyoto stubbornly perseveres the country’s heritage. Height limits on buildings are enforced across the city, and in some of the stricter areas you’ll find global chain stores converted to keep the traditional atmosphere. One Starbucks in particular has tatami mats and a noren curtain displaying the company’s logo hanging at the entrance.

I think I’m safe in saying that anyone interested in Japanese culture has some interest in making a trip to Kyoto, and I certainly can’t think of a reason why you wouldn’t. Personally though, I never felt like a visitor during my year as an exchange student. Studying in the UK, scraping through my exams, and muddling through the enrolment process meant that by the time I arrived in Japan I knew I couldn’t make experiencing Japan as a tourist a priority, which left me with something of a different (slightly more stressful) perspective.

Heian Jingu Shrine, © Finn Burton, 2017

Heian Jingu Shrine, © Finn Burton, 2017

Settling into Japan

Looking back after managing to improve, I’m comfortable saying that my language skills were pretty poor when I arrived. After spending my University break doing Kanji quizzes at my part time job when my boss wasn’t looking, I thought I might be able to land on my feet. Instead I was relying on stock phrases and lots of bowing. Not exactly sufficient when the moment we were dropped off at the University accommodation we were greeted by even more enrolment forms. It might be a good time to mention I had never been to Japan before, and a few chats with Japanese friends in the UK hadn’t really left me prepared to enter a whole new society.

I spent the first day or two very hesitantly expanding my comfort zone, hoping not to accidentally break some unknown rule. Even crossing the road presented something of a problem, as I was sure I’d heard that jaywalking was far more of an issue in Japan than the UK. I stood carefully checking the instructions on the traffic light with my dictionary app for a long time before realising the lights were automatic.

I still feel indebted to the handful of Japanese students working as dormitory tutors, who helped the international students when they came up against issues. I was really helped step by step while I was setting up my bank account and phone contract. This was the point when I really started trying to speak Japanese as well, sticking close to the philosophy that looking like an idiot was fine so long as I was learning. It didn’t help that one of the tutors was seriously good at English, but the embarrassment fuelled me. I’m still trying to forget the time I tried to tell a friend that a person’s emotions were important, and made the mistake of saying her chest was important. I might not be able to forget the shame but I won’t forget the mistake in vocabulary either. In this way, standing around looking at my dictionary and accidentally insulting my friends, I started to relax and become more comfortable. I also learnt a wide variety of different ways to apologise in Japanese.

Images left to right: Japan’s oldest Noh Stage at Nishi Honganji Temple, © Finn Burton, 2017. Starbucks Kyoto, © Stu McDonald, 2017. Yawata Tour, © Finn Burton

I’m a student, not a tourist!

Unfortunately, I did have to attend the University I’d enrolled at. The image I had of overworked students, strict teachers and high standards meant I was mentally preparing for a sink or swim experience. As it turned out the impression I’ve been left with is that Japanese University students have a pretty easy time of things compared to students in the UK, once they’ve put the hellish entrance exams behind them. The workload for students at my level was manageable; what I really had to look out for was being snatched by a university club, a sure way to lose all your free time.

When I managed to get time away from lessons I was taking every opportunity to explore Kyoto I could. Living in Japan meant a different experience to just spending a few weeks in the area, and I was actually living so close to Fushimi Inari shrine that I dropped by once or twice just to pick up (overpriced!) snacks from the market. I found I really appreciated that there was no pressure to see every tourist destination in two weeks, and this also meant that I was able to enjoy experiences that had to be built up over time.

I loved cultivating an overprotective attitude towards my local Takoyaki shop, run by an elderly couple whose habit of undercharging me won my loyalty. Being there at Karaoke to see each friend find the courage to take the mike and sing the one song stored in the Karaoke list they could sing with complete confidence. Also being there at Karaoke to see each friend find the courage to take the mike and attempt to sing the songs they clearly could not. Even though when I left Kyoto there were still experiences and places I wanted to tick off my mental to do list, if I hadn’t left a little unsatisfied I think I’d be disappointed.